Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Toe-ing the line...

Okay, dancer costumes delivered, YJ article edited...I think I'm ready for extracurricular writing again. Thank you for your patience.

I've been thinking about feet. As yogis, don't we all. The choreographer I am working with commented on how she could identify all of her dancers just by looking at a picture of their feet. At first I thought that was remarkable, but then I realized that I could probably do the same thing with my students with fairly accurate results. Where do you start when checking how someone is grounding in balance poses? The feet...and with that you see who polishes, who trims, who has bunions, who has an extra-long second toe, etc etc. Very personal, these appendages.

Feet used to completely gross me out (still not crazy about dirty toenails), but now I find them rather amazing--as I've said before. This article in last week's NYT Science section confirmed my fascination with the mechanics of the foot. But it didn't answer a question I've been pondering for years...what happens to mobility and flexibility to the toes?
I often do this sequence early in a a session, to get people thinking about their toes:

[Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Lift all your toes at once, and feel the rest of the foot settle into your mat. Now lower just the big toes. Now lift the big toes and just lower the little toes. Now lower the big toes, but keep all the toes in between lifted. Is this easy or hard? You can help yourself a bit, by mimicking the actions of the toes with the fingers (I don't know why this helps, but it does). Now lower all toes, so that each one has its own space to settle and notice how much more solid your stance is.]

I've noticed that it's extremely difficult for most people to move their toes individually. Is it shoes? Muscle development? Toe length? Both my boys (2 and 5) can drum their toes as if playing the piano, but it seems that few people over the age of 10 can barely isolate the big toe from the rest. I can, but I've spent a lot of time working on it. Do toes have the potential of fingers at birth, but the neural pathways are never built?

What do you think/know? It seems that having flexible, isolate-able toe movement would be something to work for--better balance, stronger feet and ankles--but is it something that is lost forever? How do you get it back? I will watch the modern dancers at our next dress rehearsal, because I suspect they have to be expressive down to each bare toe...

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Jenn said...

My mom has on more than one occasion commented how strong my feet look since I started practicing yoga. And yes, I notice the longer I teach the more I notice about people's feet. It's interesting to have someone new come into class and after watching how they interact with their feet have a sense of some of the things they are going to find more or less challenging as we work though asanas.

4 summers I broke my ankle and had to have surgery to place screws and a plate. To this day moving the 2 littlest toes on that foot independently is almost impossible. I'm sure the nerve damage as a result of both the accident and the repair is mainly to blame. And if it weren't for the fact I spent a lot of time thinking about my feet as a yogi, I might never realize...or take the time to work on correcting...the deficiency. But I do. And the days I finally get that little pinkie toe to abduct all on it's own are so satisfying. Funny.

Portside said...

I had a life drawing professor in college who actually had me draw with a brush held in my toes. My problem was that I was getting too caught up in my left brain (and switching hands wasn't working since I'm able to write with both).

Since then I've really worked on the whole toe mobility/flexibility thing - like doing foot equivalent of wrist stretching and foot massages - which have really increased awareness of my feet. And ultimately isn't that what one of big things yoga/asana practices are about?

Janu Sirsasana C has been a boon to my toe flexibility. Surprisingly enough, especially with my back bends. Really getting a lot of stability through the front body for standing and dropping back, really being able to ground through the floor. That being said, the flexibility is also quite useful for opening a door while carrying a basket of laundry. ;)

Yoga Spy said...

I, too, have observed that toe mobility is hugely variable among people. While genetics is probably a major factor, environment might also be key: eg, whether one walks barefoot indoors, whether one always wears tight, closed shoes. I grew up in a shoe-free household, so spreading my toes like a hand is second nature.

One of my yoga teachers revealed that she couldn't move her toes apart when she first started practicing yoga. Every morning she would sit in bed, look at her feet, and try to move them. Eventually she could and, by the time I met her, she could spread her toes. Perseverance!

I'm a foot fanatic, too. I recently posted on high heels and bunions: Just yesterday I attended my weekly yoga class and noticed the woman (perhaps in her late 50s or early 60s?) had enormous bunions. Brenda, how often do you see this condition in men?

Yoga Spy

Anonymous said...

I read your post and then I saw this:

If you scroll all the way down you will see a workshop on feet, specifically bunions. Maybe you could try to contact this teacher if you want further info on the subject.

Sara said...

I had a teacher who would always say, "lift your arches." I had no idea how to do that. I didn't even know what he meant. I finally asked how to lift my arches and he said to lift my toes (while standing in Tadasana), then maintain that grounded and lifted position while spreading the toes and laying them back down.

This is fantastic for me since I have fallen arches. Now I teach this method to all my classes. Maybe I will add on the toe touchdowns too.

Thanks for the great article.

Robyn said...

Funny, but growing up I hated my feet. My feet peeled badly and I was always very self conscious of them. I thought feet in general were gross. For an art project in high school I decided to sculpt a larger than life detailed foot. Complete with veins and a hang nail. It was my way of mocking the foot. It turned out amazing.

Ironically, now I make a living talking about feet, touching peoples feet and walking around in bare feet. I would never have thought that my distaste for feet would turn into part of my career.

As a yoga teacher, I am amazed daily about these little parts of our body that do so much for us. They work hard and often are not taken care of properly.

So hats off to our feet! I have learned to love mine!